Think pieces

Tennis rackets: fixing the norms of match-fixing

What would you do for $50,000?

Say you’re a tennis player who once beat the current world number 2. You’re ranked in the top 100 world players, but you’re struggling to cover travel and basic costs. You’ve got maybe five more years to make your lifetime income from tennis. You have a mortgage and a baby on the way.

Now you get the offer to throw a game for a cool 50 large. It’s not like anyone can prove it either way. Besides, there’s only a few people in the stands and you have a hunch the tennis authorities don’t really want to know.

So many incentives to throw a match. So few measures to rein it in. While we can’t get inside the heads of individuals, we can look at the bigger picture of match-fixing from a behavioural point of view.

Bad seeds

Incentives are about gain and, at the very top, it’s all about doing your best – the more you win, the more you gain. Move down the ranking, however, and at some point, incentives can work the other way.

The world’s number 1 player isn’t ten times better than number 32, but they can earn ten times more. Better pay at the bottom may be the intervention we need, as higher rewards at the top keep pushing the moral barrier down.

Now that unregulated gambling and sport are intertwined, the risks and incentives for match fixing are racing out of control. With real-time online betting, trillions (yes, billions with a ‘t’) are at stake worldwide. Inevitably that leads to corruption.

So, why is tennis so prone to corruption? Because it ticks all the right boxes:

– it’s a world game with a massive audience (unlike, say, fencing)

– individuals are much easier to tempt than teams

– crimes that are hard to prove (how do you show an error is unforced?) are that much more attractive

– most players only have a 10-15 year earning career

– at the highest level, it’s all about the money

– the sports’ anti-corruption watchdog – the Tennis Integrity Unit – is funded by peak industry bodies. 

What would others think?

Match-fixing in tennis is not showing signs of slowing down. Like the War on Drugs, the strategy is now about harm minimisation, since eradication is apparently in the too hard basket. Perhaps if the rewards were shared ‘down’, with higher prizes for lower ranked players, many would ignore the lure of fast money.

Of the many things impacting our behaviour, social norms play a huge role. We’re influenced by the opinions of those we regard as important, as well as how people like us behave in similar situations. But we’re also influenced by moral norms – our sense of what is right and wrong, based on accepted rules of society. So, let’s take a look at normative behaviour as expressed through the tennis. Quiet, please.

Norm v Norm

International tennis is a social event – we applaud, cheer, boo or shout our excitement because everyone else is doing it. That’s a Descriptive Norm; we’re matching the behaviour of those around us.

Then the game resumes and (except for the occasional over-excited fan) we go quiet. Why the hush during the serve? Because the “shhh” from our partner or hard look from the umpire has triggered an Injunctive Norm; what we know we’re supposed to do, based on the opinions of influential others. Often the crowd is encouraged to swap its descriptive norm (going wild) for an injunctive norm (behaving itself).

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Norms are mostly unwritten rules; if someone waves at us, we wave back, even if we don’t know them. They guide what we do (and by implication what we don’t do) and change depending on time, context and the different groups which make up society. 

Forty years ago, tennis outfits used to be all white. Sponsor logos didn’t exist. Grunting, swearing and loudly arguing with the umpire were not on. These days, logos, colourfully-branded outfits and even more colourful language are the norm.  

Double fault

While descriptive norms are defined by the groups themselves, when it comes to moral or injunctive norms, the process is much more internal. When making a decision, we have to weigh up whether it is the right or wrong thing to do and whether those who matter to us would approve or disapprove of our decision.

If you’re a lower-ranked player with too many loans, isn’t fixing a game a kind of struggle of moral norms? ‘You should pay off your debts’ clashes with ‘You should play your best game’. What happens when your partner pushes you to trade up to that new three-litre turbo SUV?

Injunctive norm right there. And if you know others are fixing matches (they may have even suggested it to you), does that make cheating a descriptive norm? It’s what many professional cyclists claimed when found guilty of doping; hey, everyone’s doing it.

Studies show people are motivated to obey the laws they believe are legitimate, rather than fear of punishment.

Getting struggling players to do what’s expected, even when they can see they won’t get ahead financially, depends on being clear about what those expectations are. As a group, we expect all professional sportspeople to do their best and play the game, not game the system. Maybe our norms need to be less unwritten and more loud and proud.

Not too loud, please, they’re about to start the finals on court 1.